James Straub still bellieves the results from the Braden River High School boys’ first trip to the state tournament in more than half a decade last spring can be misleading.
Without a senior on the roster, the Pirates settled for a first-round exit at the Class 3A tournament, a lopsided loss at the hands of Naples Barron Collier in Altamonte Springs. No matter how the handful of narrow individual losses had swung during that opening-round match, Braden River probably wasn’t going to win its first state title. The Pirates’ first trip to the state tournament since 2009, though, could have lasted longer.
“I was proud of the way they played,” said Straub, Braden River’s second-year head coach. “They were excited about seeing the competition. They were excited about being there.”
More important was the way the Pirates responded during the offseason. Instead of being happy with an historic run and dispersing to focus on USTA events, all five members of Braden River’s lineup vowed to return for 2017. They quickly decided their goal was to return to the state tournament.
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The Pirates moved within one win of that goal Tuesday, breezing to a 4-1 win against Tampa King at Braden River in the Class 3A-Region 5 semifinals. The Pirates will either face Tampa Freedom or Seminole Osceola in the region championship Thursday at 3 p.m. If Freedom wins the other region semifinal, Braden River will go on the road. If Osceola springs the upset, the Pirates will host.
Either way, Braden River’s performance in its semifinal is a promising sign. The Pirates’ only loss came at No. 1 singles, where David Ojeda, a sophomore and the Herald’s reigning All-Area Player of the Year, squandered an early lead in a matchup of district champions and fell to Aaron Wang, 1-6, 6-2, 10-8.
59David Ojeda’s ranking among sophomores in Florida, according to TennisRecruiting.net.
So Braden River leaned on its depth. Sebastian Bucarion, Race Arande and Xavier Muzgura, the Nos. 2-4 singles players, won in straight sets, and Matt Rhea, the No. 5 and lone newcomer to the lineup, outlasted King’s Adam Rowan to clinch the match without needing to play doubles.
“A lot of it becomes about playing for each other,” Straub said. “Some of the guys will play the USTA events and that’s kind of an individual thing, but when they come out here they kind of get excited.”
Success in high school tennis can be fragile. Lakewood Ranch’s girls, for example, went to the Class 4A tournament in 2016 and missed the region postseason this year when most of its young roster from a year ago decided to focus on USTA tournaments. The same thing happened to Saint Stephen’s girls two years ago, leading the Falcons to a region semifinal exit in 2016.
Some of the guys will play the USTA events and that’s kind of an individual thing, but when they come out here they kind of get excited.
James Straub, Braden River head coach
The only change to the Pirates’ five-player lineup this year came because of a transfer to the school at No. 5 knocking one player out of the lineup rather someone opting to leave the team himself. Otherwise, the rest of the lineup has an easy motivation. After making a bit of history, there’s still room to grow.
“We learned a lot from last year and we learned what we were capable of doing, so we managed to repeat everything and the kids worked hard in the offseason,” Straub said. “They’re representing their school, so that’s a big part of it. They like to see the trophy in the trophy case for the school.”